Oxford, £25, 368pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon, By Martin Kemp

 

Martin Kemp is Emeritus Professor in the history of art at Trinity College Oxford. He so is: he has written extensively about Leonardo da Vinci. He is conceivably the world's top go-to guy for Leonardo studies. Certainly, his blog contains a warning to any passers-by who might want to waste his time by knocking at his North Oxford door to ask him about the dodgy Leonardos they've bought in Romford market recently.

He is absolutely not to be confused with Martin Kemp, the Spandau Ballet and EastEnders star, though both Martin and his brother and fellow-Spandau, Gary Kemp, write rather well. I don't think that this confusion arises often in Professor Kemp's own Oxford-global academic milieu.

But when you cross the borders of publishing genres, as Professor Kemp has in Christ to Coke: How image becomes icon, you're mixing it in every way. You're in book hybrid-land, aiming for a larger, less specialist market, than Kemp normally writes and lectures at. What a title like that promises is something for the Cult Studies Lite reader, who likes popular culture discussed in superior ways, and even something for people in the commercial end of "comms": those who have to think about very un-emeritus subjects like product and corporate branding, political PR and – lovely old-fashioned word – advertising. I get the feeling that these aren't milieux Martin Kemp knows terribly well.

The confusing phenomenology of this curious book – its title, cover design (Che, Stars and Stripes, double helix, love heart) enthusiastic blurb, rather lavish production with lots of lovely illustrations – probably warrants a chapter in the history of Oxford University Press, its publisher. I suspect that they think it's going to leap the species barrier into the glorious worlds of popular polymaths like Melvyn Bragg and Bryan Appleyard, possibly cross over into telly history, even stray across into Malcolm Gladwell country.

"Iconic" is a hot sloppy word in heavy rotation in the scripts of mid-range TV presenters. It has been stretched from its origins in the stereotyped renderings of humans as devotional images in a particular religious culture over a particular period (the dictionary definition is "image, statue; [Orthodox Ch.] painting, mosaic, etc., of sacred personage, itself regarded as sacred") – to meaning something completely different and arbitrary: a rather famous, tolerably vintage and well-liked anything. Many sensitive souls, for instance, would think it was pretty hot and sloppy to bang together such dissimilar things as the imagery of Christ and the elegant double-helix spiral of DNA, let alone add Einstein's equation E=mc2.

Kemp acknowledges this early on, but there's no stopping an academic Young Soul Rebel like him. He covers 11 images (how exactly is E=mc2 an image?) that, he argues, have achieved "iconic" status over time through a variety of processes. They are, in order: Christ; the Cross; the Heart; the Lion; Mona Lisa; Che (Guevara); Nick Ut's 1960s photograph of the napalmed girl in Vietnam; the Stars and Stripes flag of the United States; the Coke bottle; the DNA helix, and E=mc2.

Just this list hints at a certain sensibility and influences, and at a particular period and cohort of intellectuals: when academic art historians were taking on board the Big Bang impacts of everything from Andy Warhol to Marshall McLuhan, and when bestsellers first had snappy Culture Clash titles of the "Beethoven-to-Beatles" kind. There's another factor here too; clearly – and unusually, I suspect, among art historians – Professor Kemp is interested in science and knows his way around in it.

If the interests and influences that shaped his choice of images-that-got-lucky are clear enough, you can't say the same for his approach. The chapters are wildly different. The linking themes, the developing arguments, the memorable checklist of factors, all the apparatus of the kind of book you're expecting, are quite gloriously disregarded. It's a collection of stories: the origins, development and breakthrough factors behind this assemblage of images.

His style moves around from full-on art historian with the "classical" subjects – Christ and the Mona Lisa – to a positively matey tone elsewhere. The sources he cites obviously vary hugely by subject. He starts by acknowledging the wonder of the internet and his debt to Tim Berners-Lee. It has allowed him to research very far and wide.

So you've got a collection of stories – essays even – on apparently dissimilar subjects. If they had actually run in mainstream magazines, you would imagine they had appeared in dissimilar places from, say, Vanity Fair to Nature. Normally, the publishing pretext for this is a famous and familiar "voice" and style – a Tom Wolfe or Hunter S Thompson – and a sense of a continuing dialogue with the reader: a "way we live now" or "where our discipline is going" kind of thing.

Instead, I've got some nice bits: the "Mona Lisa" is built from many layers of lightly pigmented oil "washes" that give that compelling depth and luminosity. Nick Ut's famous 1960s photograph of the running napalmed girl is composed in accordance with all the classical rules from Alberti's On Painting from the 1430s: the placing of the central figure; the setting of the horizon; the "posing" of the onlookers – the whole lot. All this from a young Vietnamese who had never heard of Alberti and had just a few seconds to frame up under terrifying conditions. There's even a reasonable comparison with Raphael's "Massacre of the Innocents".

It could all have been put together more modestly, as "Martin Kemp on Images and Icons": some wide-ranging accounts from a widely-read professor with an adoring fan-base who like their learning worn heavily. And who don't particularly want a High Concept set of tenuous white-knuckle connections made in easily identified three-point propositions.

Professor Kemp obviously doesn't like that kind of thing himself. In the final chapter, "Fuzzy Formulas" (and when exactly was "fuzzy logic" first fashionable in academic circles?), he says that "This was to be a conclusion.... However... it is very much not conclusive." So there. He doesn't care to go much beyond the two key factors in achieving iconic status – the fame of the subject or content, and the memorability of the image. He adds something about the replicability of the image and its ability to survive very crude reductive reproduction, but he says, almost petulantly, that he doesn't really accept the premise (he spells it premiss – smarter, more archaic) that compelling images should have much in common.

If OUP and Martin Kemp want what I think they want for this book, then they should have put in altogether tougher, more challenging editing for a distinguished but indulged academic (probably quite a darling when you get to know him) who's a bit out of his depth in the shallows.

Peter York's next book will be 'Jim Lee: Arrested', published in May 2012

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